I first visited Africa in April 2001 when I traveled to South Africa. I still remember the excitement I felt as the aircraft descended for a refueling stop in Cape Verde in the middle of the night. I could see lights all along the western coast of the continent.
I later worked with Ambassador Andrew Young at two organizations that afforded me opportunities to visit an additional 17 African countries: GoodWorks International and the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation.
As I made repeated visits and interacted with African presidents, I considered myself blessed to have seen in person someone of African descent in that position. However, I did not think I would ever see an African-American president of the United States and was content with my memories from Africa. I was proven wrong when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in November 2008.
President Obama initially had an even more aggressive policy agenda for Africa than world events allowed him to pursue. His immediate focus was on stabilizing the U.S. economy, saving the automobile industry and addressing challenges in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. An administration official later admitted, “Given the state of affairs both home and around the world, the U.S. relationship with Africa was a priority that was not in need of urgent attention.”
Although I had policy differences with President George W. Bush, no one can deny his contributions to Africa. His efforts included a $1.2 billion malaria initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). His efforts are making a difference in Africa.
Similarly, President Obama will also leave behind an impressive legacy of accomplishments in Africa that will not only continue to benefit many, but can be built upon by his successor. Consider the following:
- There is $43 billion in American private sector commitments to support the president’s 2013 Power Africa Initiative and double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. He also signed into law the bipartisan “Electrify Africa Act,” which directs the U.S. to work with African governments to develop and implement local and national power strategies.
- The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) represents the President’s signature effort to invest in the next generation. Every summer, approximately 500 young Africans, ages 25-35, travel to this country for extensive mentoring and studying at 20 colleges and universities. The program focuses on business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement and public administration. Soon, our government will begin sending young Americans to Africa.
- The Feed the Future Initiative was created to ensure that farmers can feed their families and sell their harvests at markets. Over 2.5 million farmers have raised their incomes by using new technologies and land management practices.
- The president has visited the continent a record four times, including a trip to South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. On his last visit to Africa in July 2015, he became the first sitting American president to address the Africa Union as well as visit Ethiopia and Kenya.
- In 2014, the president hosted the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. It was a historic meeting, with almost 50 African presidents in attendance. American business leaders committed $33 billion in new investments for the continent. A second summit will take place next month in New York.
- President Obama signed into law a 10-year extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the longest in the program’s history. The extension signals the United States is serious about expanding the bilateral trade relationship with Africa, including creating new customers for U.S. goods and services.
- The Doing Business in Africa Campaign makes it easier for U.S. companies to strengthen commercial ties to the continent. U.S. goods and services exports to Africa reached $50.2 billion in 2013, up 40 percent from 2009.
- The Trade Africa Initiative works with African governments to improve the business climate by removing trade barriers. From 2013-2014, there was a 24 percent increase in exports from the East African Community (EAC) to the U.S.
Africa faces numerous challenges. Boko Haram, ISIS and al Qaeda continue to wreak havoc. Corruption is prevalent at the highest levels of some governments. Yet, Africa remains a land of opportunities.
As President Obama said when addressing the Africa Union, “Here I have met Africa. The Africa I have always believed in. She’s beautiful and young, full of talent, motivation and ambition. Africa’s rise is not just important for Africa. It’s important to the entire world.”
Austin R. Cooper Jr. is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.